Beauty is only one of Yangshuo's charms. For the visitor worn down by the sterile sameness of the nation's big cities, it's a friendly, laid-back place that harks back to an older, less homogenized China. It's also easily accessible: about an hour's flight from Hong Kong to Guilin, the former provincial capital, then another hour's inexpensive cab ride south. Once you've settled in, you can bicycle to neighboring villages or take slow boats up and down the Li. At night, cormorant fishermen work quietly by lantern light, their slender black birds poised to dive from the edges of their boats. (While on duty, the trained birds wear special collars that permit them to swallow only small fish; they have to surrender the larger ones). Best of all, perhaps, the home-cooked food you dine on in Yangshuo is some of the best in China. Fresh from local gardens and hot from the wok, it's an elegantly simple, chile-inflected cuisine--a refreshing alternative to the elaborate banquet food of the big-city hotels.
When we first set foot in Yangshuo, in 1984, China was just nudging open its doors to foreign tourism. We stayed in the state-owned Hotel Number One (then the only hotel in town) and took our meals at the state-owned People's Restaurant (the only restaurant in town). Eating at People's was a little like eating in jail: you'd buy coupons at the door and relinquish them at an iron-barred window, and someone would slap a tin bowl of rice and a tin plate of food down on the counter. The food--an oily stir-fry of greens with tree ear mushrooms and the odd sliver of meat, or a scramble of eggs, tomatoes and green onions--wasn't distinguished, but it wasn't bad. We felt lucky to be there at all.
Yangshuo is still a low-rise rural town, without neon or flash, but it's become more affluent and more personable. Children go off to school wearing bright colors, and their parents dress with a hint of Hong Kong fashion. There are fax machines, travel agents, a video-rental store and--best of all--a new, bustling outdoor market, where you can haggle over everything from winter melons to persimmons to piles of tiny red Guangxi chiles, both fresh and dried. Twice a week the market explodes in size as people travel in from all over the district to buy, barter, sell or just to have fun--to eat noodles or baozi (BOW-tzuh, meat dumplings) prepared by street vendors and to catch up on local gossip.